On S. Stephen, pt 3

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Last Sunday after Trinity (Proper 29), 2020.

Saint Stephen, Deacon and holy-Martyr, gave his testimony in front of the high priest and the council. When he began to preach, we are told all looked upon him steadfastly, and saw his face as the face of an angel. But after he finished his testimony—and this is fifty verses long, which is remarkable also because in showing how Jesus is the Just One, the true Messiah, Stephen only uses Old Testament Scripture to do it—whether Stephen still remain as the face of an angel in their minds is not reported. But what is reported is that when they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth. “Cut to the heart” is an image particular to Saint Luke, who wrote the Acts of the Apostles. Simeon, at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel account, uses the image in speaking to Blessed Mary—“a sword will pierce through your own soul also”—and Luke uses the image at the end of Saint Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost to describe to describe the reaction of Jerusalem—“Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart.” In both cases, this image is about revelation: the heart (or soul) is cut or pierced so that God’s can be revealed publicly.

And this is how Luke uses the image in the story of Stephen, as well. Stephen, who has imitated Peter in preaching how our Lord is the Crucified and Risen One as known by the opening of the Scriptures, speaks so powerfully and with such authority that this adversarial council is cut to the heart. They of course go on not to be Christians (well, not immediately, more on that in a moment), but to stone Stephen. So what was revealed by the council’s heart being cut? We learn in the next verse from Saint Luke: “Stephen, being full of the Holy Spirit” (just like Mary, just like Elizabeth and John Baptist, just like Simeon, all as described in Luke’s Gospel account) gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” What the heart cut open revealed was a vision of heaven, and it was perceived by Stephen. We know this because he then cried out, “Look! I see the heavens open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” He said this out loud, and someone heard him. After he said it, they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And as they stoned him, Stephen imitated Jesus perfectly in saying, “Lord, receive my spirit” and Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” To be perfect means to live every day with such humility before God that His grace perfects us, that is, transforms us to be pure in heart, so as to see God. Stephen, at the moment of his stoning, saw the glory of God. At the Ascension of Jesus, angels taught the Upper Room Church that Jesus will come in like manner as He was seen as going into heaven. And Jesus went into heaven as the icon of humility before the Father. Stephen, in this moment perfected before God, beheld Jesus, who because of Stephen’s humility, came to Stephen, for Jesus is always the Coming One, who comes to those who pray with humility to Him.

I said a moment ago that we know all this because someone heard Stephen. Who heard Stephen? Who heard and saw all this going on in Stephen that we know at all about this momentous episode? It is clear that the person who heard all this, who saw all this, is Paul. While all were cut to the heart by Stephen’s words and deeds, cut to the heart by Stephen taking up his cross completely, it was Paul who was cut most to the heart. And despite consenting to Stephen’s death, as we are told, the power of Christ shining in and through Stephen planted a seed in the heart of Paul, which led to his conversion and all of his writing that has guided the Church for ever more. And recall the words of Jesus at Paul’s conversion: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Part of what knocked Paul to the ground, blinded him, and after his baptism sent him for three years into the desert, was realizing that as Paul had done to one of the least of the brothers (that is, one of the most humble in his weakness), so had Paul done to Jesus. In killing Stephen who had taken up his cross and followed Jesus, Paul was responsible for persecuting Jesus Himself.

It took Paul, as I said, three years to come to grips with this reality: three years of prayer in the desert, of reinterpreting his whole life in a radically different way by the light of Christ’s passion. Three years or more until Paul finally told this to the person responsible for us knowing about all this: Paul told this to Luke, and Luke, himself taken up into the Christian life, relays the story with the proper spiritual sensitivity so that Stephen’s death—which to many onlookers would have looked simply as a man dying—instead reveals Christ to us. That Stephen’s death would reveal to us that Christ has destroyed the last enemy, which is death; that Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and giving life to those in the tomb.

Stephen’s example to us of what it means to be a Saint who gives witness to Christ in the world rests upon Paul’s perception and interpretation of the event and Stephen’s whole life, which in turns rests upon Luke’s perception and interpretation, which in turn rests upon our perception and interpretation—that we, along with Paul and along with Luke, can be cut to the heart. And that we, as we gaze ourselves upon Stephen, might behold the face of an angel—and that we, through the ears of Luke hearing himself through the ears of Paul, may also hear Stephen’s report of the vision of the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. And that we, through the spiritual eyes of Luke seeing himself through the eyes of Paul, may with Stephen, behold the glory of God.

On S. Stephen, pt 2

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Twenty-third Sunday after Trinity (Proper 28), 2020.

We continue today with our reflection on Saint Stephen the hoy Martyr, looking at how his story in Scripture makes more real for us the profession in the Apostles’ Creed “I believe in the Communion of Saints”—a living relationship with the Saints being fundamental to baptismal living. Saint Stephen is such a poignant example of everything it means to be a Saint who gives witness to Christ in the world; witness to Christ to others both in word and in deed. Last Sunday I spoke of how his preaching as a Deacon, not so much liturgically as a sermon during Mass but speaking about the power of Christ in the public square, in the streets, in people’s homes as he served the poor, embodied the wise maidens and how they made sure to have enough oil—oil being a composite symbol of Scripture of giving oneself in sacrifice with prayerful compassion according to Scripture (the primary symbolism of oil being seen in the example of Saint Mary Magdalene).

Summing up also is the term taught by Jesus in that parable of the wise and foolish maidens—His teaching to “watch.” For us to watch is to live baptismally: our living sacrifice, suffering with Christ, and finding Him through prayer gloriously revealed in Scripture as our daily Bread. And we can be sure that St Stephen himself took this to heart, and made his own life by God’s grace over into a life of watching—finding Christ through prayer in Scripture and thereby suffering with Christ (what we mean by having compassion) all as a living sacrifice of his life to Christ, offering and presenting his soul and body unto Christ, as we say in the Mass and as Saint Paul says, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice. As we hear the story of Saint Stephen and take his story into our heart, we partake more and more with Him in the Holy Communion of Christ, and share more and more with Stephen the grace and heavenly benediction, or blessing, of Christ—for Christ blesses all who partake of Him.

The most significant signal that Stephen was full of grace and heavenly benediction is the description of him at the end of Acts 6, that all how sat in the council, looking steadfastly at him, saw his face as the face of an angel. It is an arresting image, particularly because it comes from the hand of Saint Luke, the author of the Gospel account attributed to him but also of the Acts of the Apostles. Angels figure prominently for Luke in the proclamation of the Gospel—the archangel Gabriel’s message first to Zachariah and then to Blessed Mary: the angelic light in Luke’s telling always shines with the heavenly light of Christ. To Zachariah the angel proclaimed Zachariah’s son John Baptist would be great in the sight of the Lord, and would turn many of the children of Israel to Jesus. And to Our Lady, the angel proclaimed “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest, and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end. Mary herself thereby so shone with the angelic light that her mere voice a short while later to her cousin Elizabeth caused the baby John Baptist to leap in her womb, and to fill her with the Holy Spirit herself. And it is the angelic light that proclaims the Resurrection of Christ—as the two men stood with the holy Women at the tomb, and reminded them of Scripture so as to be able to recognize the living among the dead, and to understand that suffering leads to eternal life.

This is what it means for the council of Jews to see Stephen’s face as the face of an angel. The glory of Christ shined through Stephen—through his eyes, through the disposition of his face, through his voice, through his fragrance. The defense he then gave radiated with angelic energy that revealed Christ through the Old Testament. To become one with Christ is to receive the radiance that shown from Stephen’s face—at that moment, on trial for his faith in Christ, Stephen was beholding God’s face, for the face of an angel is the face that see God, the face that sings to God around the heavenly throne, singing unceasingly “Holy, holy, holy.” The holiness of Stephen took everyone’s breath away, the peace of Stephen made their jaw drop, the love of Stephen began to soften their hardened hearts (especially that of Saul who looked on), and the authority of his presence, the authority of his face, the authority then of his words giving testimony to the living Christ, the Lord Christ, Son of the living God, who gives mercy to all who truly turn to Him—this holiness, this angelic presence, this love so convicted them of their sins that all their demons were scared up from their hidden places in the hearts of the council that they acted as demonic animals and stoned Stephen to death. But no before Stephen would drop his last bit of heavenly dew upon them—saying, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin. Do not hold this sin against them”: an echo of Our Lord Jesus Himself on the Cross, again captured by Luke: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Stephen teaches us that the angelic light shines to others in our faces when we ask the Father to forgive our enemies, forgive our persecutors. True forgiveness from the Father is Christ’s light in the world.

On Saint Stephen, pt 1

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Twenty-second Sunday after Trinity (Proper 27), 2020.

In my sermon for All Saints’ Day I preached that God desires His Saints to have a living relationship with us, and He desires we have a living relationship with the Saints. That the Church recognized this is why the phrase “I believe in the Communion of Saints” was seen as necessary to the Apostles’ Creed, which from ancient days has been the profession of faith at a person’s Baptism. We therefore, in being baptized into Christ’s Body and incorporated into Him, are at the same time baptized into living relationship with the Saints through Christ. And so continually responding to the fact of our Baptism, which is the life of mature Christianity taught by Archbishop Michael Ramsey, invites us to reflect on our relationship with the Saints, and to develop a devotion to the Saints, even one or two Saints who we might find particularly teach us the Gospel of Christ.

I went on to say that, at least by my lights, perhaps the most poignant example of everything it means to truly be a Saint who gives witness to Christ in the world is Saint Stephen the holy Deacon. And so what I am beginning today is a series of sermons in which, through reflecting on the appointed scripture passages, we seek to find how these describe Saint Stephen’s commitment to Christ, as an example to all of us—a great example within the great cloud of witnesses that is the Saints.

Stephen is the first Martyr of the Church recorded in the New Testament. His saint story is found in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, chapters 6, 7 and three verses into chapter 8. He was among the first Deacons of the Church, which is where his story begins in Acts chapter 6. The Church discerned a need for Deacons because the Twelve Apostles needed help. Having the necessary devotion to prayer and the ministry of the Word—meaning the study of scripture and the liturgical celebrations both Office and Mass—meant they were not able to serve the poor as the numbers of the poor demanded. At this point there is not yet the threefold division of Holy Orders—Bishop, Priest, and Deacon—that developed certainly by the early 2nd century, if not by the late 1st century. But even at this twofold division of Holy Orders we see that the ministry of the Deacon comes out of the ministry of the Bishop. The Deacon extends the hands of the Bishop, hands that reach to the poor, the lonely, and the widowed. The Deacon, in a very real sense, leads the ministry of the laity. Lay Christians, too, are to extend with love the hands of our bishop toward those in need of the Gospel.

Undoubtedly this ministry of Stephen and the other six Deacons included what is generically called “preaching.” That is, not preaching in the liturgical sense but speaking about the power of Christ in the public square, in the streets, in people’s homes. This sort of preaching could have risen to what we would call teaching, catechesis, even formation. But prior to that, Stephen’s preaching would be first and foremost his sharing with others the truth of Jesus Christ being the Son of the Father Almighty, spoken by Moses and the prophets, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the truth of His crucifixion as the revelation of personal salvation through Christ’s Resurrection. This preaching by Stephen is described in Acts as wisdom and the Spirit by which Stephen spoke. We have an extended account of his preaching, in the defense he gave in front of the council of Jews after Stephen was accused, falsely of course, of blasphemy against Moses, the Law of Moses God, and the holy Temple itself. All of Acts chapter 7 is given over to it.

It is a remarkable account, one that might draw us to ask, how on earth did he give such an account? How was he able to do it, given that he was facing sure death, sure stoning? Who among us would be able to give such glorious witness of the faith under such imposing circumstances?

The means to do so is actually what Our Lord Jesus is getting at in his parable of the ten maidens, and specifically with his teaching about oil. Stephen is an imitation of the five maidens who were wise in taking with them flasks of oil. Oil in scripture is a symbol of sacrifice, such as when Saint Mary Magdalene pours all of her most precious oil upon Jesus to anoint Him. She is described as anointing Jesus for burial, and so she is already suffering with Jesus, which is what compassion means: suffering with. Sacrifice, compassion are what oil symbolizes, but also prayerful listening to God, which again is Mary Magdalene’s example of choosing the better part, sitting at the feet of God, listening to Him: which for us means listening to God through Scripture. Just as having oil means the lamp can light up, so as by reading Scripture God lights up and reveals Himself as the scripture is opened.

All of which is to say that Stephen understood that the life of following Christ is a life of sacrifice and compassion according to Christ revealed through Scripture—indeed, a life of sacrifice and compassion according to Christ Who is the Crucified and Risen One revealed only through Scripture. We see how deeply Stephen had drunk of Scripture in Acts 7 and his glorious defense, which is the whole of salvation history through the Old Testament retold by the Light of the Resurrection. One cannot just do that without giving one’s life over in sacrifice, compassion towards Christ, and deep prayer with Scripture. All of which is what Jesus means when He says, “Watch.” For us to watch is to live baptismally: our living sacrifice, suffering with Christ, and finding Him gloriously revealed in Scripture as our daily Bread.

Living Baptismally, pt 18: Witness as Martyr

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of All Saints’, 2020.

The Church’s annual celebration of All Saints’ Day is not only the patronal feast of our church in Morton, as important as that is and as blessed as we are to have the whole company of heaven interceding to God on behalf of those who gather at the white church on the corner of Plum and Chicago. It is also the case that the feast of All Saints God desires His Saints to have a living relationship with us, and He desires we have a living relationship with the Saints. A living relationship with the Saints, who themselves are not dead but living themselves is what is desired by God, Who, as the evangelists record Our Lord Jesus teaching emphatically, is not God of the dead, but of the living. All who are baptized are alive in Christ’s resurrection. So when the Church prays the Apostles’ Creed—when we pray, “I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints”—to profess this belief is to express a desire for relationship, living relationship, with the Saints: as much a living relationship with them as we have with our closest friends, even with our family. As our Collect says, God has knit together His elect in one communion and fellowship—living communion; living fellowship. The Saints are souls who want to get to know us, and want us to get to know them. And we get to know them by studying their lives, because in their lives is found the Gospel of Christ, lived out in the world.

Among the most well-known images we use to describe the Saints is the phrase, “great cloud of witnesses.” This is taken from Hebrews 12, in a glorious passage that reads “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” Running with perseverance the race set before us is the baptismal life, and our perseverance is especially against the bodily appetites and passions of sinful temptation, whether physical, emotional, or mental. As Saint Peter teaches us: “Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith.” The race is that resistance to the devil and his ongoing temptation. But Saint Paul in his epistle to the Hebrews reminds us that by our side, in fact surrounding us every which way we look, is a great cloud of witnesses. And these Saints in their witness to the Gospel that is Christ, guide us, comfort us, and aid us—and they teach us the Gospel in their lives, for their lives in all their wondrous diversity share deep affinities with one another, as people who responded to the Light of Christ, and ordered their lives around that Light, and thereby live in ways characteristic of the Beatitudes taught by Christ—lives poor in spirit, lives that mourn, are meek, that hunger and thirst for righteousness, are merciful, are pure in heart, are peacemakers, and are persecuted and reviled by wider society.

Yet we must understand that being reviled and persecuted is the consequence of the prior activity of giving public witness to the Gospel—public witness in the world. Certainly we are to give private witness to Christ in our more or less private daily living. Yet Jesus clearly taught we are to go out into the world and proclaim Him everywhere and in all places—that is, give witness to Him everywhere and in all places. This is the activity of saints—who we are all called to be. We are not called by God to be rich in money, or even poor in money. We are not called as our primary identity to be Americans, or citizens of any city, state or nation. We are not called in our primary identity to whatever job we have in society. These are all aspects of who we are as people alive in the world today, but they are not what we are called to be primarily and fundamentally. Primarily and fundamentally we are called to be saints. We are called to give witness to the Gospel in our words and deeds in the world, in public, for others to observe.

I will conclude my sermon today with something of a teaser, like a “coming attractions” trailer we see before a feature film. Perhaps the most poignant example of everything it means to truly be a Saint who gives witness to Christ in the world is Saint Stephen the holy Deacon, and what I will be doing over the next several Sundays is preaching according to the appointed lessons and finding how they describe Saint Stephen’s commitment to Christ, as an example to all of us. Although we have the account of the death of Saint John the Baptist which came before the death of Stephen, the Church regards Stephen as the first martyr because Stephen was the first to die after the Ascension of Christ and after the Coming of the Holy Ghost—Stephen was the first to die after the Church was properly constituted as Church by Pentecost. As the feast of All Saints’ is our great reminder of the cloud of witnesses ever living around us, Stephen is the great reminder that the English word “witness” derives from the Greek word we translate as “martyr.” To be a martyr is to be a witness to Christ; to be a witness to Christ is to be a martyr. Martyr means witness to Christ before it means being put to death. Because we are all called to be witnesses to Christ in our daily lives, we are indeed all called to be martyrs.